Classic Cars Wiki
Classic Cars Wiki

DeSoto Airflow

The DeSoto Airflow was an automobile built by the Chrysler Corporation for sale through its DeSoto division during model years 1934, 1935 and 1936.

DeSoto received the then-revolutionary Airflow model due to its price structure relationship to larger and more expensive Chrysler brand cars. The 1934 Airflow models are recalled for their unique styling. They generate interest for their engineering innovations.

Airflow streamlining[]

The aerodynamic, radically designed car debuted to much fanfare alongside its larger stablemate, the Chrysler Airflow. From the front bumper back, the Airflow's design represented the first major attempt to smooth away the wind catching objects and channels found on cars of the era. Headlights were moved from their traditional pods forward of the radiator, and housed in flush mountings on either side of the broad waterfall-styled grille, which lacked the traditional upright radiator throat and decorative cap ornament. In place of the flat windshield that most cars had (and which caught the brunt of on coming winds as cars moved through the atmosphere), the Airflow split the windshield into two panes of glass, each angled to better redirect the air around them. Front and rear fenders received smoother, more form fitting curves. In the rear, Airflows encased the rear wheels through the use of fender skirts.

In addition to the benefits of its smoother exterior design, which translated into a quieter passenger compartment than on previous DeSoto models, the car featured wider front seats and deeper back seats with more leg room. Passengers sat on seats which were a good distance from either axle. They reminded one of a Victorian era davenport (sofa).

Because of the car's unibody construction, passengers rode within the frame of the car, not on top of the car as they did with other American makes. It also boasted a stiffer body and better weight distribution through the engine placement over the front wheels, in contrast to the common practice of placing the center of the engine's gravity just behind the front wheels. The automotive press gave the cars positive reviews for their handling and acceleration.

Marketing failure[]

DeSoto (and Chrysler) touted all of its Airflow bodies as "futuristic" in an age of streamlining, the public found the cars to be too different in a time of economic uncertainty. While Chrysler's cars looked better, with the Airflow bodies stretched over their longer wheelbases, the shorter 115 DeSoto wheelbase made the cars seem bulky. Walter P. Chrysler, who had been a strong proponent of the Airflow project, was stunned by the lack of interest in the car, which he believed pointed the way for the future of American cars.

Interest in the Airflow was strong when it was introduced. Unfilled orders for it totaled 15,580 on April 30, 1934. This was 48.3% of comparable Chrysler and DeSoto shipments in 1933.

In May 1936 the DeSoto Airflow began to be promoted in some 435 newspapers in the United States. The highly streamlined car was advertised together with more traditional airstream cars in general magazines and by itself in class magazines. The DeSoto advertising account was managed by J. Sterling Getchell.

Rumors persisted that the Aiflow's body was unsafe. Tests showed its all-steel unibody construction safer than those of other cars made at the time (most automotive manufacturers still used wooden sub-framing over which steel skins were applied for their car bodies). In one widely distributed advertising film shown in movie theatres, an empty Airflow was pushed off a Pennsylvania cliff, falling over 110 feet; once righted, the car was driven off, battered, but recognizable. Still, the myth persisted that Airflows were unsafe.

While Chrysler still built a more familiar-looking car in 1934, DeSoto only offered the Airflow. Despite selling more Airflows than Chrysler, Chrysler sold more cars overall with the majority being the redesign of the 1933 "regular" Chrysler.

For 1935 and 1936, DeSoto added the more traditional Airstream, which it shared with Chrysler, and DeSoto regained a portion of its lost market share. While the Airflow was still offered, the bulk of DeSoto's sales were Airstreams and the Airflow was relegated to the back of the DeSoto catalog.

Those buyers who did choose the Airflow found that their models carried a more prominent peaked grille design. Other than cosmetic changes (hood louvers, etc.) the cars remained unchanged.

While Chrysler continued to use the Airflow body through 1937, DeSoto discontinued the car in 1936 to focus on more traditional designs and the higher sales volume that they brought the division.